Religious Language (A2 - Edexcel)

  • Created by: MattyLew
  • Created on: 02-05-18 21:56

Analogy: Via Negativa

The truth about God can be discovered by speaking negatively about him - uses the principle of negation. Such as 'immortal', 'timeless or 'inaccesible. Aquinas argued in favour of this arg. 


  • avoids the pitfalls of using inadequate human language when describing the qualities of god e.g. God is like a father may convey the wrong idea like he has a physical body or faults


  • Cannot distinguish theism from atheism --> can deny the existence of God altogether by using only negatives; 'God does not exist' and this would be considered true
  • for religious believers, it means we cannot say anything meaningful about God 

Maimonides: the example of the ship - a person does not know this 'ship' is in existene but by learning what it is not he can eventually understand which ship this is. 

Davis: someone who had heard the exact same negations could equally arrive at a "wardrobe". Gives no indication and it is unlikely to lead people in the right direction (via negativa would not work for someone who knows nothing of God). 

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Analogy: Unequivocal and Equivocal language

Univocal: words used to describe God are used in their everyday sense e.g. God's love is the same as my love 

S: makes it easier to understand, religious believer can connect and relate with God W: danger of anthropomorphism: if we refer to God and humans in the same way we cannot differentiate between them. "But no name belongs to God in the same way it belongs to creatures" - Aquinas

Equivocal: the ame word is used but with a different meaning or a vague/ambiguous way. This is because God is distinct and different from the nature of humans.

W: God is so different it makes it difficult or even impossible to understand him. "nothing could be known or demonstrated at about god at all, for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation"

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Aquinas: Analogical Language

use words in a non-literal way to show there is a relationship with the word. It applies in a similar but not identical way e.g. God's love is similar to human love but infinitely different 

S: It enables people to speak meaningfully about the transcendent god. It is Aquinas' suggestion to solve the problem of unequivocal and Equivocal language

Analogy of Attribution (Aquinas, Summa Theologica) --> the word 'good' can applied analogously to both God and humans because God is the original and perfect source of human goodness (there is a direct relationship between them). Bull example: if a bull's urine is healthy it is a reflection of the bull's health; the health is more complete and perfect in the bull itself. in the same way, God is the source of perfect qualities and possessed them first. Hick - 'upwards analogy' - dogs faithfulness = downwards, human faithfulness in God = upwards. Ramsey: model = 'God is good' (what is familiar helps us understand, qualifier = God is infinitely good (adds depth and helps to understand the specific meaning). causality

Analogy of Proportionality (Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Truth) --> two things can be compared with each other because they each have the same relationship with something else (not because they are directly related to each other). The word 'good' can be analogously applied to both God + humans because the relationship between God and divine goodness is the same as the relationship between humans and human goodness. scale

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Symbolic Language

Non-cognitive (goes beyond the factual and not meant to be interpreted literally. Pictorial and aims to go beyond our normal understanding.  Schubert: "a pattern or object which points to an invisible metaphysical reality and participates in it"

Can be pictures/objects/actions/metaphors/similes e.g. the cross in Christianity represents Jesus' sacrfice and our hope for redemption from this sacrifice. "I am the light of the world" 

Paul Tillich: "Symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate because it transcends the capacity of finite reality to express it directly" - it affects us emotionally, argues all religious language is symbolic, goes beyond the empirial world, allows personal participatory revelation about ones faith allowing a deeper understanding of God, it is impossible to challange because of it's non-cognitive nature; cannot be falsified or verified 

Randall: 4 Function of symbols in religious language

  • 1. Motivation: inspire people into action
  • 2. Social: a common understanding of religious symbols allow people to work in cohesion
  • 3. Communication: the message is captured clearly 
  • 4. Clarifies and discloses our experiences of the divine 
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Strong narrative which uses symbolism and imagery to explain the unexplainable; go beyond 'true or false' and explain the other worldy. They express a truth, but it is not known what actually happened. 

  • Strauss: religious truth is being conveyed in story form which is not necessarily objectively true. The miraculous occurence should be the focus but the story should be instead. 
  • Dawkins: (The God Delusion, 2006): "Much of the Bible is...just plain weird" 
  • Bultmann: religious language should be demytholigised because it is impossible for humanity in modern times to believe such outdated stoies. There is still important truth to be extarcted once the myth was stripped away which he argued was the real tool in kindling faith. 
  • Kogerson: supports myth as feels religious language is anti-realist and is not concerned with making true or false statements about objective reality. 
  • Examples of myth: Noahs Ark, Adam and Eve (creationists would see this as true), Jesus' miracles
  • Strengths: memorable, accessible (especially for children, gives reasons for acting ina. good way
  • Weaknesses: outdated concpt dealing with anachronistic and anciet ideas, science challenges these ideas (e.g. Adam and Eve), may be misinterpreted as genuine miracle, problems of translation from the original author (may have lost meaning along the way)
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Problems with Symbolic Language

Kingdom of God - words change their symbolic meaning over time, this would have had greater meaning thousands of years ago when the divine right of kings was a societal norm 

Problems with varying interpretations = the original meaning may be lost or becomes trivial

Referring to God as 'father' feels patriarchal in the modern age - some symbols are outdated 

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The Verification Principle: Context

The Vienna Circle (Austria) 1920's/30's were a group of eminant philosophers whp arranged meetings, congresses and published works on key philosophical ideas. They built on the ideas of Comte, that the 'theological' view is outdated. The 20th century was moving towards sicence and rationalism, from religion to enlightenment. The abscence of God was therefore replaced by philosophy and meta-physics, replacing theology. They were called the Logical Positivists, as they asserted that only statements which were empirically verifiable are cognitively meaningful.

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The Verification Principle: Context

A. J Ayer outlines the VP in 'Language, Truth and Logic'

For a statement to be meaningful, it must be verifiable 

He builds on Hume's fork (there are only two kinds of truth claims, and they are stuck on different 'prongs' of a fork): a priori (e.g. a tautology, all bachelors are unmarried men), analytic (true by definition) and necessary VS a posteriori, synthetic (derived form the senses - empirical, not true by definition only experience) and contingent 

Ayer concluded that religious statements can be neither trues nor false (as they are non-cognitive) according the the VP and are therefore meaningless!

S: In line with science and the scientific method, demands a sense of reality as there must be some justification for what religious people claim, statements are only true if they can be verified through sense experience

W: rules out all types of language as being meaningless e.g. ethical statements, aesthetic ones and statements about ancient history, much of science deals with entities that cannot be observed, the VP does not pass it's own test! Hicks eschatological verification (RL can be verified after death)

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The Falsification Principle: Anthony Flew

A statement is only meaningful if we accept that there is evidence that may falsify it. 

  • When asserting something: you are by default asserting that there are facts and evidence that may count against your assertation, while also denying the opposite of what you are saying = there has to be some sense experience that counts against your claim. 

Flew argues if you are not prepared to accept that anything could show that God doesn't exist then saying "God exists" states nothing at all. 

The Parable of the Gardener: Two explorers come upon a clearing in a jungle, there are many flowers growing so one explorer says "there must be a gardener who tends this plot". They wait but no gardener appears, he suggests the gardener is invisible so they put up an electric barbed-wire fence around the perimeter. The believer is still convinced even though no shrieks were heard, suggesting the gardener had received a shock, saying there is a gardener he is just "invisible, intangible and insensible" At last the sceptic despairs asking "But what remains of your original assertation? What is the difference between an invisible, intangible and insensible gardener from no gardener at all?"

aims to show the problems of unfalsifiable beliefs, as the believer does not allow the sceptic to falsify his assertations, instead he changes his beliefs to suit the questioner. What RB's do!

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Hare's parable of the paranoid student (or lunatic

In this story, a student at the University of oxford holds an unfalsifiable belief; that the dons (teachers) want to kill him. Even if the teachers are nice, or people try to prove the dons aren't trying to kill him the student thinks this is a ruse. For Flew; this asserts nothing because it cannot be falsified. however Hare agues the paranoid belief affects how the student (won't go to lectures) behave and how the dons behave (might want the student expelled as they worried they will attack them put of 'self-defence'). The fact this belief makes the student a "lunatic" shows it means something to us. 

Even though Hare is a Christian, he says he is not defending religious belief. He believes religious statements are not like scientific statement as they are expressions of a non-falsifiable worldview. 

Hare is suggesting Flew's falsification is too strict; and that even a non-falsifiable belief can be meaningful because it affects a persons state of mind and prediction of their behaviour. We know what the lunatic means when he says "my teachers are plotting to kill me" even though no evidence to the contrary makes a difference to him. 

= introduces the idea of bliks - which are meaningful, but unverifiable and unfalsifiable (blik is a Dutch word for "sight" and means a world view)

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Bliks: Hare

  • Suggests Bliks as a response to Flew: disagrees that religious beliefs are cognitive assertations about what is true or false INSTEAD everyone has their bliks. These express a world view, that is logically prior to the facts (you start with a blik, and these determine all your other beliefs and what counts as fact). 
  • Cannot contradict a blik with other facts because people select the facts that support their blik, and ignore the evidence that does not fit. e.g. driving being safe
  • The view that God exists (or doesn't) is a blik and no evidence can ever falsify this belief!

S: this theory explains why different religions make contradictory factual claims; if the claims are expressions of bliks, it is based on personal meaning rather than factual content. Explain why RB's are not convinced by the evidence that appears to contradict their beliefs. Religious believers do tend to interpret the whole of life through the lens of their religious blik. 

  • W: Flew: bliks don't match the way religious language is used by religious believers, as most believers see their belief statements as cognitive. if religious claims don't assert anything then most religious claims become pointless.
  • It may be construed as patronising for religious beliefs. 'God exists' is a factual claim and can be verified in principle (by the design argument) and is falsifiable (the problem of evil + suffering)
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Mitchell's response to Flew + Hare

  • Mitchell wanted to show us that religious statements are meaningful even if they are neither straightforwardly verifiable nor falsifiable.
  • Mitchell argued that Flew was wrong in his supposition that believers never, allow anything to count against their beliefs. 

His parable differs from Hare's (the parable of the paranoid student) because the partisan admits many things may and do count against his belief (can be falsified) whereas "Hare's lunatic who has a blik about dons doesn't admit anything counts against his blik" + the partisan has a reason for his commitment to the stranger, there are no reasons for bliks.

  • The Parable of the Partisan and the Stranger: A stranger meets a resistance worker, who is on his side. He asks the stranger to trust him even though he might see him doing things that appear to be going against the cause they are both working for. True that he does see him do odd things but he still has faith in the resistance worker.
  • He, therefore, claimed that Flew missed the point that like the resistance worker, believers have a commitment to trust God based on faith. Mitchell also claims that believer does not allow anything to conclusively falsify their belief in God, but this does not mean it is meaningless because they do show that there is a real problem of which they must be aware.
  • Mitchell’s point is that religious belief is based upon facts, but that belief cannot be verified/falsified. All the peculiar and problematic parts of religious belief will be revealed at the end of time according to religious belief.
  • This is similar to John Hick’s theory of eschatological verification
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Wittgenstein: Language Game Theory

Picture Theory: language works by triggering within us pictures of how things are in the world. Language is only meaningful if it used in relation to what we see in the world. Language presents facts. 

Language Game Theory: concluded that language is a series of games that are played out, each with it's own rules. Meaning that it is possible for religious and ethical laguage, along with other types, to be used without contradiction and challenge. 

  • Members of a community are all players of the same game
  • They use the same language and understand the context in which the language is used - Criteria of Coherence is the rules within the particular language game 

= one use of a word is not better than another, language is meaningful if it understood in it's correct context, language is functional so we need to be aware of how it used, to understand it we must also partake in the language game 

Religion and science are examples of different language games with very different rules = you cannot expect to be able to verify/falsify religious claims in the same way! RC's are non-cognitive, anti-realist approach. What is meaningful is what is "true for me" - whether god does or doesn't have an external reality doesn't matter as truth is relative. 

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D Z Phillips - Language Games

Religious langauge is a way of defining the rules of the game e.g. saying "God is love" is not just a description of an existent being, it shows how the word God is to be used. 

Fideism: religious langauge is emaningful to those who genuinely use it and it does not need to be justified by those who participate in the language game

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Evaluating Language Games


  • makes sense of different cultures having their own religious meanings in their own language games - also explains different religions claims about God 
  • language can take on multiple meanings, there is not one rigid definition, it depends on the context
  • promotes empathy and understanding for people who are different to yourself - may help prevent conflict
  • Anti-realist approach: truth is relative to the context (there is no single truth b/cos either there is no reality independent of our own perceptions, metaphysical approach OR we cannot know reality because of our way of thinking, we lack the epistemic distance to evaluate)


  • realist critique: what is the true meaning of the religious statement? (belief that some aspects of reality exist independently of the human mind, so either God does exist or does not)
  • prehaps it promotes alienation because it can also be used to stop people ctriquing a certain belief - "its my belief, it is true, it is not wrong"
  • Fideism: theory that states faith is independent of reason and faith is superior than reason at arriving at some truths - negative label 
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